The “Best” Feminist Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books

Isn’t it a little sad that when a celebrity like Joseph Gordon-Levitt calls himself a feminist, it’s considered news?

But in the wake of so many high-profile women—Madonna, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Juliette Binoche, Bjork, Melissa Leo…even Lady Gaga—all declining to identify as feminist, a public voice that still embraces the term, from either side of the gender divide, is a necessary corrective.

Let’s review: women still only hold 4.8% of the CEO roles of the Fortune 500, as of January 2014 only 9 women served as Head of State and 15 as Head of Government (there are 196 countries in the world, roughly), in 38 countries women account for less than 10% of parliamentarians, and in the United States—bastion of freedom and equality—median full-time earnings for women have been 77% of men’s across the spectrum of jobs for a decade. And it gets much worse. The largest survey ever conducted in Europe on violence against women showed that 33% of respondents reported being physically or sexually abused since age 15, and some people estimate that 500,000 women have been raped while serving in the U.S. military since the 1940s—largely by their comrades in arms.

Despite the feminist movement’s long and storied history of achievements—which include, let’s not forget, things like very basic property, reproductive and voting rights—stunningly ignorant young women like Shailene Woodley use their undeservedly large public pulpits to spew nonsense like “The word ‘feminist’ is a word that discriminates, and I’m not into that.”

You know how Webster’s defines feminism? “…the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.” Equal. How the hell, in 2014, is that still considered controversial?

In the spirit of declaring myself a staunch feminist, here are a few examples of the best* feminist sci-fi and fantasy books. Please join in with any recommendations in the comments below.

The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin
The most oft-cited book in any discussion of either feminism, or women in sci-fi in general, The Left Hand of Darkness is the indisputable first choice for the simple fact that it is one of the all-time great science fiction novels of any kind. In the classic mold of all great SF books, The Left Hand of Darkness revolves around an elegant what-if conceit, but really lives in the specificity and richness of its characters.

Le Guin imagined another world where humans have evolved over time to go through gender cycles, being neuter, male and female at different stages of their lives. This blunt metaphor for the ways in which gender dictates how we experience this world is shown through the contrasting absence of fixed roles and discrimination on another planet. But the core of the novel is essentially a love story between an Earth-raised man—who arrives on Winter with all the preconceived gender boundaries of the world of 1969 Le Guin published the novel in—and Estraven, a government minister whom the Earth Envoy initially mistrusts.

The Left Hand of Darkness is, all at once, a gripping ice-bound survival adventure, a thought experiment and a truly feminist exploration of possibilities: what does it mean to be human when we are all equal?

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood has always annoyed me. Her reluctance to accept that she’s a science fiction writer has always seemed the worst kind of pretension to me. However, I’d be a fool to deny the power of The Handmaid’s Tale, which sits comfortably beside 1984 as one of the most chilling dystopian novels ever written.

Atwood’s genius with The Handmaid’s Tale lay in how little satirical stretching is required between the real lives of many women and the hypothetical stern and inhuman patriarchy of her imagined future. Women subsisting as breeding stock is also a clever inversion of the B-movie trope of Amazon-ruled styrofoam planets. All of which makes Atwood’s denial of the science fiction label even more irritating given her obvious understanding of it’s power chords and traditions.

But let’s not quibble, The Handmaid’s Tale is an excellent novel with sharp world-building and even sharper satire—a book that even resists dismissal as a feminist rant thanks to the genuinely moving journey of the protagonist Offred towards agency.

The Scar, China Miéville
Here’s where my choices get a little more eclectic and less obvious but bear with me. You could reasonably point to any of China Miéville’s books—particularly Embassytown, which was warmly reviewed by Le Guin herself—as being, if nothing else, feminist-friendly. Few other contemporary male writers of fantastic fiction imbue their female characters with as much individuality.

The Scar, in particular, is told from the point of view of the fascinating (and wonderfully named) Bellis Coldwine. Bellis starts the novel as a near-caricature of a repressed ice-queen and ends as a strongly sympathetic, fully-realized and recognizably flawed human. As in The City and the City‘s city, Miéville uses scars as a multi-purpose and fluid metaphor for various physical and psychic transformations. The novel is structured around a journey towards “the scar,” a physical location where the laws of reality break down into chaos—the transformative potential of scars taken to the extreme of sundering.

Bellis becomes a surrogate for all women through a series of bad choices and unhappy accidents, which, by the end of the novel, are even revealed to be the result of unseen manipulations by a man…maybe.

Also, The Scar is full of beautifully baroque monsters.

The Malazan Book of the Fallen, Steven Erikson
Steven Erikson’s 10-volumes of door-stopping high fantasy may seem like a perverse choice to appear on the same list as books like The Left Hand of Darkness, but I think it’s a great example of feminist fantasy simply because it assumes equality as a starting point.

Erikson made an incredibly smart choice when he began the vast and archaeologically deep worldbuilding at the heart of the Malazan series: since this is a fantasy world, traditional gender roles don’t have to apply. So, when new characters are introduced—which happens very often—as “Sargent” or “Captain” or “Commander” you can’t automatically assume they are male.

In the first novel of the series, Gardens of the Moon, the two most politically powerful characters we are introduced to are both women: Empress Laseen and her Adjunct Lorn. And Erikson goes on to include a wide variety of other female characters at all levels of power, from slaves to gods, whose gender has little to nothing to do with their standing, role or fate. Rape is unfortunately a possibility for some women, but no more-or-less so than the possibility of violent outcomes for any of the male characters—it’s a dark place, but equally dark.

This may seem like a simple choice, but how many high-fantasy books are still full of damn ladies in waiting? Even in George R.R. Martin’s wildly popular books, Brienne of Tarth and the Mother of Dragons are still really outliers, no? And Daenerys begins the books as an ineffectual court lady, sold into marriage by her brother and repeatedly sexually assaulted.

Jack the Giant Killer, Charles de Lint
Jack the Giant Killer is something of a nostalgic choice on my part as Charles de Lint lives and works in my hometown of Ottawa, Ontario where the novel is set. The wild hunt that opens the novel takes place in a park I can picture easily and is only 10 minutes from where I’m now writing. However, Charles de Lint is also possibly the best urban fantasy writer working today.

His re-imagining of the classic Jack of beanstalk fame as a kind of archetypal trickster role that can be inhabited by a woman was fresh and unexpected in long ago 1987. Today, when every second e-book bestseller on Amazon is an urban fantasy of some kind, it’s hard to imagine how fresh de Lint’s approach with Jack the Giant Killer was. I know I had never read anything before Jack that resuscitated fairy-tales, which had been thoroughly trampled on by Disney for so long, by combining them with contemporary urban settings and issues.

Jack the Giant Killer is a tightly-written, thrilling bit of fantasy adventure starring a woman—whose main aide-de-camp is also a woman. Charles de Lint has been reflexively and undemonstratively feminist throughout his career and should be much more widely celebrated.

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*And by “best” I of course mean: “my personal and highly subjective favourites.”

Marvel Toys with Sci-Fi

Star Wars - Howard ChaykinA bleak landscape. Casualties by the score. A desperate pack of misfits doing what they can to survive in increasingly hostile terrain. A premise for a post-apocalyptic film? No. What Marvel Comics and its artists were facing in the late seventies.

In my first article, I explained how the plummeting sales of mainstream comics nearly caused the collapse of DC and Marvel and how creators outside of these companies planted the seeds of non-genre comics in the early eighties.

The Big Two comics companies weren’t going down without a fight. Well, maybe more accurately, they were waiting out the downturn and hoping something, anything, would come along as their salvation. Meanwhile, desperate for some sales spark, Marvel in particular fell back on a strategy that many companies had tried in the past: produce a whole bunch of books of various genres, throw them at the wall and see which ones would stick.

To their credit, some of these genre comics were quite inventive. Bruce Lee was a movie sensation in the late 70s so Shang-Chi, Master of Kung-Fu comic was created; Evel Knievel the stuntman had captured imaginations so The Human Fly, a comic about another real-life stuntman was produced; Japanese giant robots and monsters were appearing in cartoons on TV (along with various merchandise) so Shogun Warriors and Godzilla were offered up; horror reappeared in a tamer Comics Code* form in books like Frankenstein,  Tomb of Dracula and Werewolf by Night; adaptations of other successful genre literature were created such as Conan the Barbarian. Blaxploitation film was channeled into a book called Luke Cage, Powerman and Jack Kirby (who always marched to his own drum) tried a book based on the further adventures detailed in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Strangely, previously accepted genres like romance comics were not revived nor were war comics. DC had an on-going title Sgt. Rock whose sales may have played a part in discouraging others. MAD Magazine was still going strong so imitators like Plop! from DC were attempted. DC also tried to capture the zeitgeist by paring Mohammed Ali with Superman for a prize fight but the effort was widely mocked.

These books of course met with various levels of success. Conan was a hit but Shogun Warriors, Godzilla, 2001, and The Human Fly were big misses. Further, none could staunch the bleeding of sales of Marvel’s bread & butter: The Amazing Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the Mighty Avengers, Captain America and Thor.

Then Marvel got lucky.

Roy Thomas, an editor, had heard Hollywood was creating a sci-fi movie that would be released in 1977 and asked the director permission to adapt it for comics. Luckily the director was a fan of Marvel Comics and gave the go-ahead. The adaptation’s publication would coincide with the film’s release but as the final edit was not finished, the artist and writer would work from the script, some rushes and production stills. The result was one of Marvel’s best-selling comics of all-time and by far its most successful adaptation: Star Wars.

Those who have read the Roy Thomas scripted and Howard Chaykin drawn Star Wars know what a funky book it is. It has scenes and dialogue that hit the cutting room floor, a different progression and story structure and some crude likenesses of characters. Star Wars #1 was on newsstands before the film’s release. It would be the first piece of merchandise from the franchise.

Many in the comics industry credit the Star Wars comic alone for turning around Marvel’s late 70s fortunes. (Marvel, of course, continued the adventures of Han Solo et al long after the 6-issue adaptation had finished). It had whet the appetite of Marvel for other space opera properties so when Battlestar Gallactica the film (and later TV series) came along, they bet on lightning striking twice. It didn’t.

Marvel was still casting about for other properties to adapt when one of their lower-tier writers approached them with an idea of adapting toys to comics. As Marvel had little to lose, he was given permission and two books were produced in close succession: the Micronauts, based on a line of Japanese-made interchangeable mini-figures, and ROM, a big clunky robot doll made by Parker Brothers.

The writer was Bill Mantlo, a guy whose comics career up to that point had been based around how fast he could write. That may sound absurd, but in the monthly grind of comics production, a writer who could turn in a reasonable script on a dime when a previously-planned story was delayed for whatever reason was a God-send for many editors.

Mantlo was a “true believer,” a term Stan Lee used to describe die hard Marvel fans, yet he had greater ambitions than writing fill-in issues of Iron Man. He wanted to produce a sci-fi comic and Marvel had given him the green light to produce two. His first would be his greatest.

The Micronauts

Micronauts toys were based around a Japanese anime TV series in 1974 but Mantlo only knew of them as cool toys his mother had given his son one Christmas. The concept was clearly sci-fi with various space ship accessories, futuristic weapons and advanced and impractical architecture. The unique selling point for the toys though was the mini-figures, the robots, parts of vehicles et cetera were interchangeable. You could mix and match the heads, hands, weapons etc with almost any other Micronaut. (This was long before Playmobil or Lego mini-figures it should be pointed out.) One character, Force Commander, had a horse, Oberon, that could blend together to create a centaur for example. Some weapons on the Astro-Station could be mounted on the chest cavity of a normal Micronaut .

The main baddie was a Micronaut named Baron Karza, clad in black armour and mask that looked suspiciously like Darth Vader but actually pre-dates the Sith Lord by at least 3 years.

Based only on the look of the toys and this idea of interchangeable body parts, Mantlo went about creating his comics masterpiece.

He started lucky. Michael Golden, a virtually unknown artist at the time who had done some fill-in work at DC and worked part-time as a plumber, was brought in. Golden was a cagey guy, a bit of a hippy, who loved sci-fi  and Mantlo’s concept intrigued him. He could draw like a dream.

Seizing on the word “micro”, the adventure would take place in a microscopic universe. The evil Baron Karza, a former Chief Scientist, has seized control of the planet Homeworld and slain the monarchy. Prince Argon and Princess Mari escape the coup and go underground to form a rebellion against the tyrant. The dictator doesn’t hold power by sheer force of arms alone, however. The key to his power and popularity is a business he runs, the Body Banks, which allows the Homeworld population to live forever by renewing body parts. Where do these parts come from? Where else? The poor underclasses of Homeworld sell them or gamble them away in the Body Bank casinos while the rich bask in eternal young and beauty at their expense. Indeed, the Baron himself is over 1000 years old.

The seizure of Homeworld is in fact the final move for the Baron to dominate the entire Microverse. Like the emperor he is, he now goes about keeping the population docile and amused by hosting gladiatoral games wherein his enemies are publicly executed. There is one loose end, however.

A former student from 1000 years ago named Arcturus Rann is set to return from his futile exploratory mission of the Microverse. Why futile? Because during Rann’s trip, warp drive (a faster method of travel) had been discovered on Homeworld and the Baron used the data beamed back by Rann to conquer all that had been explored. Rann is also the last of the line of Lord Dallan and Lady Sepsis, monarchs the Baron snuffed out centuries before while their son traveled around in suspended animation as a micronaut.

Upon his return, Rann is quickly imprisoned while the Baron, always the scientist, can examine his protege for any side-effects from the journey. While in prison, Rann meets two other political prisoners, a mischievous insectvorid thief named Bug and Prince Acroyear, another deposed monarch but from the warrior planet Spartak.

Finally they are all set to be destroyed in the arena of the Great Games but things don’t go the Baron’s way as Princess Mari and her rebellion set off explosive charges, cause mayhem and the Micronauts: Rann, Mari, Bug, Acroyear plus two “roboids” of theirs, Microtron and Biotron, escape in Rann’s ancient ship, the Endeavor. With the Baron’s forces in hot pursuit, Rann’s only remaining evasive tactic is to pierce the Space Wall, which lands them as 4″ mini-figures on planet Earth.

What would follow over the next 12 issues was some of the best comics Marvel has produced. The story of surviving as little people on Earth, the forces of the Baron pursuing them there, befriending Earthlings, the discovery that the Micronauts were not the first from their microverse to land there, an encounter with another mad scientist, taking the rebellion back to the Microverse and ultimately defeating the Baron had breath-taking pace and scope. It was a tour-de-force and importantly for Marvel, it sold like gang-busters. It was of course helped by the popularity of Star Wars and some of the elements Mantlo “borrowed”: rebellious princess, funny robots, and the main character’s connection to a mysterious power, in this case the Enigma Force.

The concept itself was strong on its own though. It was also brought to beautiful life by the skill and creativity of Golden who peppered his visuals with odd alphabets, inventive layouts, and excellent renderings of duct work. The rapid pacing was also due to Golden.

After Micronauts #3, Marvel and Mantlo knew they had a hit on their hands and the latter’s ambition grew. Mantlo began to draft a 50-issue epic that would culminate in the defeat of Baron Karza at the hands of Arcturus Rann. Golden would have none of it.

He had committed to a 12-issue run and after that would be happy to do a few covers but that would end his association with the book. Mantlo, the Marvel fanboy, had introduced some superhero elements that irked Golden and Golden had been told his beautiful drawings weren’t “Marvel enough” and he should ape Jack Kirby like everyone else.

So Mantlo changed tacks and crammed the important elements of his 50-issue master plan into 12 so that Golden would be the artist to realize them.

Other artists would take over after Golden. Chaykin, hot off his Star Wars success, was a natural choice but he handed in some rather pedestrian work. Pat Broderick, another newcomer, revived the book with some stellar illustrating. A year after Broderick left, Jackson Guice would bring the book to another creative peak.

Mantlo ultimately got 58 issues of Micronauts, 2 Annuals, a 4-issue mini-series with the X-Men, but using all-told a dozen artists and a story-line that included 2 Baron Karza resurrections. The book rarely wavered from its core sci-fi premise and had a cadre of very loyal readers, so loyal that the Micronauts was one of three books Marvel selected to sell exclusively through a new form of comics retailing in the 80s: the comics shop.

Mantlo would pen another hit book based around another toy, the aforementioned ROM, Spaceknight. This toy had no backstory whatsoever except a blurb on the box saying his arch enemies were something called “Dire Wraiths”. Mantlo’s concept was a cross between the Silver Surfer, the Skrulls (concepts lifted from classic Lee and Kirby Fantastic Four) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Comparing the impact of ROM versus the Micronauts is a case study of the influence a talented artist can have. In the Micronauts there were the stunning visuals and compelling character designs of Michael Golden, whereas ROM was pencilled by a journeyman cartoonist Sal Buscema. The art was serviceable but hardly inspired. The dreaded Dire Wraiths, whom Parker Brothers had named but never visualized, were no more than Pillsbury Doughboys with fangs.

The concept was that the Dire Wraiths, a shape-shifting sorcerous race,  had threatened ROM’s home planet of Galador for generations but were ultimately defeated by the valor of the Spaceknights. The Spaceknights were selected from the best and brightest of Galador, but their humanity was transferred into an electronic suit of armour. The knights’ original human form would be restored once the war was over. Alas, upon defeat, the Dire Wraiths fled and scattered amongst all the populations of the universe. Feeling responsible for this outcome, the Spaceknights pursued the Wraiths to all corners of the universe. ROM’s assignment was Earth.

What followed was a McCarthy-esque hunt for the evil shape-shifters which ROM could detect with a special analyzer kept in an extra-dimensional “pocket” and which would appear in his hand at will. Upon discovering some evil-doers, ROM could switch devices and blast the Wraiths, compassionately banishing them to limbo. As the war progressed, however, and the casualties mounted, ROM began to feel his humanity melting away and being replaced by the cold Galadorian steel which housed his soul. His salvation? A pretty woman from a small town, of course, named Brandy Clark, who reminds ROM what is important in life.

In execution, ROM was more super heroic than the Micronauts. It was largely based on Earth with only an occasional sojourn into space. There were many super-hero guest stars over the course of the book and the story culminates in practically all the super people forming a massive army to help ROM kick Dire Wraith ass once and for all. It dealt with themes of duty, sacrifice, guile, and compassion with a sheen of sci-fi as shiny as ROM’s armour.

It sold well, helped in its early days by Michael Golden covers.

These three books together: Star Wars, the Micronauts and ROM Spaceknight helped to save Marvel from collapse in the late 70s. It could have been the beginning of a new era of sci-fi comics (or toy-based comics for that matter) except for the revival of super-heroes spearheaded by 4 prominent creators: Chris Claremont on the newly launched The New Uncanny X-Men, John Byrne on X-Men and later the Fantastic Four, Frank Miller on Daredevil and Jim Shooter on the Avengers and later Secret Wars.  These books and creators brought new life and concepts to long-in-the-tooth properties and were largely responsible for the boom in comics sales in the 1980s. The super-heroes were back, having narrowly escaped death, more powerful than ever.

Star Wars the comic finished shortly after The Return of the Jedi film came out. Micronauts finished in the late eighties. ROM lingered only slightly longer, but their work was done. Unfortunately for the creators and Marvel, these properties couldn’t be revived at a later date because they were not owned by Marvel, only licensed.**

Of the three, the superior book is the Micronauts, in particular the first 12 issues. You will have to hunt them down in whatever comic shops are left and in the few remaining back issue bins still stocked. Or if you want to be lazy about it, find them on-line.  You will be treated to a well-crafted and highly entertaining book, a book that could have been a new direction for mainstream comics but is now a fondly remembered footnote.

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*The Comics Code was responsible for the demise of the strongest line of horror comics ever created, those being from EC Comics of the 1950s. Indeed, it was created to specifically target and neuter the conventions and violently graphic nature of these books.
**Recently Marvel and Lucasfilm were bought by Disney, so Marvel will be once again producing Star Wars comics.

Divergent Ticket Winners

Divergent, the movie

We had an amazing response to our recent Divergent ticket giveaway. Thanks to everyone who entered and congratulations to our four winners, listed below along with their favourite YA book choice:

Rubby Neville “Hunger Games trilogy…first [of the] dystopia genre I’ve read…”
Karen D “…The Giver…first futuristic book I read that seemed plausible…completely engross[ing]”
Susan Lehmann “I hate to sound stereo typical…but I still like all vampire…related books (especially with a good love triangle…)”
Alyson Barlow “Hunger Games—it was so well written”

Based on the entries we received, The Hunger Games still seems to loom over the YA market, but the Divergent books are selling well and there’s some buzz around the upcoming movie. Any of the winners are welcome to come back and post a comment here letting us know what you thought. Enjoy the show!

Giveaway: Divergent Tickets [CONTEST CLOSED]

Divergent

UPDATE: unbelievably fast response and the tickets are spoken for. The winners will receive emails shortly, thanks.

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We have four pairs of tickets to give away to a preview showing of Divergent in Ottawa:

Wednesday, March 19, 2014
Show Time: 7:30 PM
SilverCity Gloucester Cinemas
2385 City Park Drive
Gloucester, ON K1J 1G1

If you’re interested, send us an email using the contact page with the subject line: “DIVERGENT TICKETS.” In the message of your email, tell us what your favourite young adult book is and why—just a couple of lines is fine. The first four entries will receive a link and code to download free passes.

And before you ask, no I don’t know anything about either the Divergent books or the movie, but I am partial to dystopian teen angst a la Battle Royale, so I have an open mind.

Sci-Fi: Future Shock Proofing

Can science fiction make the world a better place?

As I’ve discussed before, SF can have a demonstrable impact on the real world in terms of inspiring scientists to develop new technologies. But part of that previous discussion included the potential costs and negative effects of that technology—something SF lit explores in often frightening detail.

Damien G Walter has written a thoughtful and compelling piece for The Ascender Magazine on the way SF serves as a forum for building a better world through imaginative explorations, as, in his words: “…imagination has an unspeakably important role to play in solving the problems of our world.”

In the overview to The Ascender article on his blog, Mr. Walters describes the two basic audiences for SF as liberal and conservative constituencies, each approaching reading SF with different aims: world-building and escapism, respectively.*

“The increasingly frequent arguments about race, gender, sexuality and other forms of representation in science fiction (I put forward this increasing frequency as a good thing, to be clear) arise at the faultlines where the two constituencies of science fiction meet.”

It’s this social futurism that is often neglected when discussing the predictive aspects of SF writing. Mr. Walters cites excellent examples of progressive SF writers who address sociopolitical issues directly, such as Ursula Le Guin. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is still one of the benchmarks for literature about gender and The Dispossessed made me seriously consider for the first time if an anarchist state might be possible. But there are just as many wacky libertarian-conservative imagined futures like Starship Troopers or The Moon is a Harsh Mistressline marriage anyone?

But I think Mr. Walters really gets at the core of an important idea when he writes about SF as the literature of the imagination:

“The wider message of science fiction isn’t necessarily the content, but rather, the medium itself. If science fiction is the great product of the modern imagination, then it is to the imagination that it directs our attention.”

The individual quirks of a given vision of the future are less important than the act of trying to imagine one. Gay marriage seems downright prosaic once you’ve spent time inhabiting an imaginary line marriage. Star Trek showed the first interracial kiss on television. John Christopher’s The Death of Grass made us confront the possibility of ecological disaster as early as 1956. Beyond predicting the next cool gadget, SF has long helped those of us who embrace the genre adapt to the ever increasing pace of technological and social evolution.

One of the principle benefits of reading a lot of SF is the protection it affords the reader from future shock. If you have imagined—with the help of a good writer—a wide range of possible futures, you’re less likely to be alarmed by new technologies or new social norms.

Vernor Vinge‘s Rainbows End is a great example of near future world-building that examines both the practical and social impacts of emerging technologies. Reading the novel, I shuddered at the (largely metaphoric) book scanning device that devoured whole libraries; felt pangs of sympathy for a character struggling with the displacing effects of anti-aging tech (a possible social cost of looking younger that had never occurred to me before), and vicariously reveled in the potential applications of wearable computing.

Despite the potential downsides of Vinge’s future, I’d be ready for it tomorrow. Bring on the wearable computing and constantly wired life, I’m ready to Google everything I see.

Can SF make the world a better place? The cumulative effect of all these imagined futures on the real world is probably equally dark as light—as many drugged-out cyber terrorists as social progressives might have been inspired by a given piece of SF. But change is indeed the only constant and SF is the only literature that has ever fully engaged with change at all levels.

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*Although I would argue that the line he draws between these two goals is blurry at best, isn’t world-building just a different kind of escapism? —maybe a more progressive kind, but still.

The Magic 8-Ball: Science Fiction Predicts

It’s a cliché among writers and critics of science fiction to say that the genre is not about predicting the future, but instead is meant to hold a mirror up to the present. There’s obviously some truth to this when we read books like 1984—famously titled as a reversal of 1948, the year it was written. And in the words of William Gibson:

“I think the least important thing about science fiction for me is its predictive capacity. Its record for being accurately predictive is really, really poor! If you look at the whole history of science fiction, what people have said is going to happen, what writers have said is going to happen, and what actually happened — it’s terrible. We’re almost always wrong.”

What this vigorous denial of the predictive ability of science fiction somewhat obscures though, is the interesting back-and-forth exchange between fantastic literature and the real world.

Beginning long before science fiction emerged either as a term or a distinct genre, Jules Verne imagined, in startling clarity, many now commonplace technologies such as submarines, televisions, and even the taser. Like many later science fiction writers, Verne spent hours in research at the library—specifically in Verne’s case the Bibliothèque nationale de France—immersing himself in recent scientific and geographic writings. He would then extrapolate from general knowledge a possibility. What separates an SF writer from a futurist is the ability to take that possibility and turn it into a story. Sometimes the predicted tech becomes a metaphor, but Verne inspired many more scientific minds than his with the rigour of his imagination. For example, Michio Kaku noted Verne’s influence on a young  Edwin Hubble, describing the budding astronomer as “enthralled” by Verne’s tales in his book Parallel Worlds.

Arthur C. Clarke also acknowledged his debt to Verne, writing, in an introduction to a biography of Verne:

“Jules Verne had already been dead for a dozen years when I was born. Yet I feel strongly connected to him, and his works of science fiction had a major influence on my own career. He is among the top five people I wish I could have met in person.”
—Butcher, William (2006), Jules Verne: The Definitive Biography, New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press

Clarke himself wrote a letter to Wireless World in 1945 proposing geosynchronous satellites, which later became a key component of the space elevators in his novel The Fountains of Paradise. Geosynchronous orbit is still known as Clarke Orbit in some circles. He is often cited in discussions around the validity of science fiction as a predictive tool, but I would argue that Clarke wrote a formal proposal to a scientific paper and only later turned his concepts into a story.

And for both Verne and Clarke, telling a story was more important than designing the future, otherwise wouldn’t they have become researchers or scientists of some sort?

A 1964 article in the New York Times by Isaac Asimov is, for me, the perfect microcosm of the accuracy of science fiction writers. Parts of Asimov’s predictions for what future visitors would see at the 2014 World’s Fair are suprisingly accurate:

“…by 2014, only unmanned ships will have landed on Mars, though a manned expedition will be in the works…”

“As for television, wall screens will have replaced the ordinary set…”

“Robots will neither be common nor very good in 2014, but they will be in existence.”

But for many of his more accurate predictions, Asimov falls down on the specific details. Of the television, he goes on to say that:

“…transparent cubes will be making their appearance in which three-dimensional viewing will be possible…”

Despite writing that robots will still not be very good in 2014, a thoroughly accurate prediction, he still imagined that they would be in general use for gardening. And where are the moving sidewalks in urban centres? No, airports don’t count.

Still, it’s no accident that Honda’s torturous acronym for their prototype robot is ASIMO. Science fiction has, without a doubt, been a huge influence and often a direct inspiration on the scientific community. But although to say that science fiction inspires scientists is true, it limits the scope of what is really a complex web of interrelations. Remember the hours and hours Verne spent in the library pouring over recent theories?

And what’s the downside of this incestuous relationship between the scientific community and science fiction?

William Gibson tells an anecdote about the fear he has around imagining future tech in his work: that someone will make it real. Apparently a group of West German hackers were once caught selling secrets to the KGB for cocaine and cash. At the trial, their twenty-something-year-old leader* stood up and told the judge he’d never understand them or their culture unless he’d read Neuromancer.

The thing is, not all science fiction writers imagine new technologies as an endless progressive bounty, some, like Gibson, are busy writing cautionary tales—or at least with ambivalence. The import of a given story is really up to the reader in the end. In the words of Doris Lessing:

“There is no doubt fiction makes a better job of the truth.”

——
*Possibly a reference to the trial of Marcus Hess? I can’t find a clear source for this anecdote, but trust me, Gibson has told it more than once…maybe No Maps for these Territories? I’ve lost my copy…

Copper Cylinders: More Than Human

I’ve read a few sci-fi books over the years, but really only a few. I read widely generally, but sci-fi is to me what non-fiction and hard-boiled are to me—I know so little that I don’t even know where to start! Andrew invited me to do a regular feature here on Albino Books and we agreed that approaching the classics of sci-fi and fantasy from the perspective of an outsider, a newbie, an ill-educated blunderer, was the only way to go. The name of this feature, Copper Cylinders, comes from an almost entirely forgotten 19th-century Canadian novel by James DeMille called A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder. DeMille’s novel is a very odd mixture of adventure, travel, dystopia, meta-fiction, and early sci-fi. It tells the story of a ship stranded at sea by a persistent and desperate lack of wind; the shipmates are close to losing their minds from sheer boredom when a sealed copper cylinder just floats along—a break in the boredom seized on with more energy than we with our 21st-century array of constant distractions can barely imagine. They retrieve the cylinder and break it open to find a handwritten story, claiming to be true, of an unknown civilization organized around principles entirely alien to their own. The manuscript is read aloud to help pass the interminable time on the calm, wine dark sea.

Sci-fi abounds with strange manuscripts waiting to be picked up and opened. I begin with Theodore Sturgeon’s 1953 fix-up More Than Human.

I was a bit lost, at first, reading More Than Human. I hadn’t expected to find the prose so…Cormac McCarthy-ish when I began it. Sturgeon was clearly better able to write a complete sentence than McCarthy is, but I suppose I was expecting something less literary and more science-y (no, I can’t really tell you what I mean by the latter):

The idiot lived in a black and gray world, punctuated by the white lightning of hunger and the flickering of fear. His clothes were old and many-windowed. Here peeped a shinbone, sharp as a cold chisel, and there in the torn coat were ribs like the fingers of a fist. He was tall and flat. His eyes were calm and his face was dead. (p.1)

The idiot, who comes to be known simply as Lone, is 25 years old when the tale begins. He is pre-verbal, disconnected to his human brethren, and “purely animal—a degrading thing to be among men.” Sturgeon’s prose is alternately dense, tight, and bordering on the purplish. So when I read that when “a guard or a warden would find himself face to face with the idiot and the idiot’s eyes, whose irises seemed on the trembling point of spinning like wheels….the gates would open and the idiot would go, and as always the benefactor would run to do something else, anything else, deeply troubled,” I really didn’t know what was going on. More Than Human begins with an overabundance of metaphor, simile, figurative language—was this supposed to be literal?

As it turns out, yes—although my discovery of what Lone could do (and how and why) occurred at precisely the pace he learns it. Lone is taken in by a sad childless couple in the country; over the years, they teach him to be something resembling human. He learns to talk; he becomes a good farm worker; he feels a certain connection to the Prodds who come to accept him despite his strange and essential difference from them. Until, that is, Mrs. Prodd finds herself with child and Lone is politely asked to move on. He does, building himself a little cave in the woods, foraging for food and supplies.

He won’t remain alone very long, however. In the city, a community is forming that will find him and become his community. First there’s Janie, who makes life uncomfortable for her maliciously disinterested mother and her collection of boyfriends with alternately frightening and playful displays of her telepathic and telekinetic powers. Unwelcome in her own home, at age five, Janie “began playing with some other little girls. It was quite a while before they were aware of it,” in part because they are only toddlers. The best game involved moving their little jumpers just out of reach after they took them off, something these girls (Bonnie and Beanie) do with alarming speed: “the twins could skin out of their rompers faster than the eye could follow.” Teleportation! It’s only a matter of time before the three little girls escape their uncomprehending and hostile parents and end up starving in the same forest Lone inhabits, and only a matter of time till they all come together.

Getting to know each other is a difficult and often hilarious process for these four—three young children and one grown-up idiot of limited vocabulary. And then Baby arrives—Baby, the mongoloid progeny of the Prodds, who probably kills Mrs Prodd in childbirth and drives Mr Prodd insane. Baby is rescued by Lone, but their relationship is symbiotic: they cohere through Baby, who can’t talk but can communicate telepathically with the girls and who is, Janie reckons, like an “adding machine” that always “gives you the right answer.” Through Janie, Baby explains himself:

“He says he is a figure-outer brain and I am a body and the twins are arms and legs and you are the head. He says the ‘I’ is all of us.”

“I belong. I belong. Part of you, part of you and you too.”

“The head, silly.”

Lone thought his heart was going to burst. He looked at them all, every one: arms to flex and reach, a body to care and repair, a brainless but faultless computer and—the head to direct it.

“And we’ll grow, Baby. We just got born!”

Lone nearly bursts with the hopeful possibilities of it all—me too! But the hope can’t last, for this being, whatever it is, soon receives a new head. This occurs in the middle portion, Baby Makes Three, which lays out Sturgeon’s grand idea—and it still reads like a grand idea, goddammit, 60 years after being written.

Gerry Thompson narrates this section. He tells how he eventually finds Lone and the others, is accepted, how Lone dies, how he ends up as its head. It’s an ugly, painful story, the most important parts of which are buried in Gerry’s sub-conscious. Fourteen years old, bitter and mangled after years of abuse and neglect; Gerry tracks down a psychiatrist to help him understand why he’s just murdered the woman who cares for them all after Lone dies.

What he learns is that he, Janie, Baby, Beanie, and Bonnie together form a new being, which Gerry names Homo Gestalt. Sturgeon imagines the next stage in human evolution as not physical, but instead mental—or, more precisely, psychic. Gestalt—something, loosely, either greater or other than the sum of its parts. Homo Gestalt is a fully functioning being distinct from the beings that comprise it. As the new head of this being, Gerry can control the actions of all the others—except Baby, with whom he can’t communicate directly, but he can force Janie to act as a bridge between them using his controlling whirly eye trick. (A plot hole that never gets sewn up—if, as Lone could, Gerry can look into anybody’s eyes and not only extract all the information there, but also control their behaviour, erase their memories, etc—why can’t he do this with Baby? Baby is physically deformed, never learns to talk, but is possessed of vast knowledge—why can’t Gerry just access this all directly by looking into his eyes?)

In Lone’s idiot but mostly gentle hands, Homo Gestalt is a wonderful but probably harmless thing; in Gerry’s, it quickly becomes terrifying because he is willing to do anything to preserve the Gestalt being’s life (it’s why he kills their guardian, Miss Kew—she makes life too comfortable for them as individuals). Things become more ominous when Gerry realizes that, as the controlling force behind his Homo Gestalt, he can do anything he wants, and what he wants is to have fun. Fun, that is, according to the standards of an angry, maladjusted 14-year-old: “Everybody’s had fun but me. The kind of fun everybody has is kicking someone around, someone small who can’t fight back. Or they do you favours until they own you, or kill you…I’m just going to have fun, that’s all.”

I loved this terrifying turn in the novel. I love that Sturgeon explored the schlocky possibilities of “bleshing” (blending and meshing in a symbiotic community of comfort and comfortable survival) just to knock them down to explore the darker possibilities of human physic evolution.

Gerry is sociopathic, but there is some good news: not all of the parts of Home Gestalt are essentially ruthless. Without Janie, Gerry can’t communicate with Baby, etc and so it becomes not dead, but partially disabled. Part 3, Morality, focuses on a grown-up Janie on the run from the ruthless Gerry and the enthralled Beanie and Bonnie. Enter Hip Barrows, a mechanical genius of great promise inexplicably gone mad and rescued from prison by Janie. They go through their own process of psychiatric healing—in hiding—until Hip decides to offer himself up as a sacrificial goat to try to teach Gerry about that thing he’s missing—morality. I get that; I would agree that no human or post-human being makes complete or safe sense without morality. But while I found Janie and Hip’s interactions—alternately practical, frustrated, tense, and sweet—entirely compelling, I found the resolution of More Than Human mostly frustrating. Here’s why:

Gerry accepts the sacrifice but doesn’t actually go through with it because, going in and reading Hip’s mind, he sees there’s more at stake than his own basic desires; he becomes more human. Because Gerry doesn’t sacrifice Hip, Hip becomes part of their Homo Gestalt entity. He is the missing piece that enables Gerry, as the organism’s head, to become mature and self-aware enough to earn acceptance by all the other Homo Gestalts, a community that was just waiting for him to stop the violence and bullshit so they could reveal themselves to him. Okay—but one afternoon? Actually, that’s not even what bothers me most—this is a novel of ideas, and so the timelines don’t matter incredibly much. What matters is that while the newly complete Gestalt being is made complete by morality (Hip), it can’t transcend some pretty appalling aspects of twentieth-century social structure. Janie and Beanie and Bonnie are and remain merely appendages of the being, there to be used as the head sees fit—good thing the head has morality (male) to make sure he doesn’t do too much damage! The structure of the being persistently relegates women and minorities to positions of subservience; not only that, they don’t object: Janie is happy to stop making decisions now that Hip is around to make Gerry behave himself. And the twins never learn to talk; only once does either of them take independent action, and that’s to prevent Gerry from killing Hip before he learns his lesson—and as soon as Hip gains control of the situation, she and her sister immediately begin taking orders from him.

I don’t know if the other Home Gestalts have heads that are female or black or both—I think they could be beyond race and gender, but this isn’t made explicit. All we know of them, besides that they’ve been waiting for Gerry to get his shit together before revealing themselves, is that “multiplicity is our first characteristic; unity our second. As your parts know they are parts of you, so must you know that we are parts of humanity.”

Okay. But the only characters in Gerry’s Homo Gestalt who have last names are male. And Beanie and Bonnie, who are black, not only never learn to talk (at best, they “gabble”). Making things even more uncomfortable, Bonnie and Beanie’s father speaks with all the eloquence of a minstrel show; when he discovers them naked (because young Janie has put their rompers out of reach), all I could think was ‘Oh hell, please don’t let him be black! Please!’:

‘Bonnie!’ he bellowed, ‘Beanie! Wha y’all?’ He lurched out into the open and peered around. ‘Come out yeah! Look at yew! I gwine snatch yew bald-headed! Wheah’s yo’ clo’es?’ He swooped down on them and caught them, each huge hand on a tiny biceps. He held them high, so that each had one toe barely touching the concrete and their little captured elbows pointed skyward. He turned around, once, twice, seeking, and at last his eye caught the glimmer of the rompers on the sill. ‘How you do dat?’ he demanded.’ You trine th’ow away yo’ ‘spensive clo’es? Oh, I gwine whop you.’

It soon becomes clear that he is, in fact, black. I was appalled not only because it’s just appalling, but it was more so because the disjoint between Sturgeon being able to imagine such a wildly compelling form of human evolution sits right on top of, and never questions, such contemporary prejudices. (It’s like how in Neuromancer, William Gibson invented the internet but couldn’t imagine a world without cassette tapes—but sad and disturbing rather than charming and a little funny.)

So, I mostly loved this book but it made me uncomfortable and embarrassed sometimes. I read a lot of nineteenth-century fiction, so it’s not like I don’t come across such prejudices about race and gender (the former much more explicit than the latter in More Than Human) fairly frequently. But I guess, as a relative newbie to sci-fi, I’d hoped the big ideas with regards to science would necessarily seep into ideas about the present…But, after all, maybe that’s too much to ask—Theodore Sturgeon was, presumably, only human.

Precision of Naming: Science Fiction, SF or Sci-Fi?

“I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.”
—Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing

As critic and writer Damien Walter rightly notes in a post at The Guardian“If there’s one thing science fiction fans love, it’s an argument. And if there’s one argument they love more than all others, it’s the attempt to define what science fiction actually is, and what is or isn’t included in that definition.”

Mr. Walter provides a succinct and entertaining glossary of terms for the main genres of writing. I laughed out loud when I got to his definition of one of my preferred abbreviations, SF:

“Because no one knows what SF means, writers and fans are forever telling people it means ‘science fiction’ before correcting people when they say, ‘Oh, you mean sci-fi,’ which tends to annoy both parties.”

I grew up reading science fiction, or whatever, in the late 70s and early 80s—in the wake of Star Wars, sure—but also in the afterglow of the New Wave of late 60s early 70s SF. (I’ve obviously drifted into another annoying subgeneric term, but stay with me.) The New Wave was a movement characterized by rampant and occasionally ill-advised experimentation. The term “speculative fiction” arose out of that movement and is still a favourite of many good writers and critics; and is yet another entertaining entry in Mr. Walter’s glossary.

The New Wave writers—like Michael Moorcock, Harlan Ellison, J.G. Ballard, Ursula K. LeGuin—disdained the use of the term sci-fi because Forry‘s pet name cheerfully included all the b-movie cultural detritus from which they sought to distance their art.

And despite my love of b-movies and related schlock, I read so much Ellison et al as a young man that I’ve never been able to fully embrace the name sci-fi. Which is unfortunate, as sci-fi has stuck with the majority of the public at large. That I would choose to cling to an abbreviation like SF at the risk of being misunderstood perhaps says more about my character than I’d care to examine.

Further, the choice of the name Albino Books speaks to my love of the work of Moorcock, who is one of the kings of cross-genre experimentation, where these labels cease to be meaningful.

In my last post I brought up William Hope Hodgson, who wrote for pulp magazines long before the term science fiction was invented and before the semi-rigid marketing categories of science fiction, fantasy, horror and mystery became commonplace in bookstores. The recent emergence of the term New Weird is partially a reaction to the restrictions of these current genre definitions. Writers like my hero China Miéville, equally inspired by Hodgson, Lovecraft, The Island of Dr Moreau and Advanced D&D, have returned to a Weird Tales-style soup of unexpected genre tropes—tales of the fantastic and unusual.

I contend that the the impulse to mix these seemingly disparate elements is really the natural order.

I sympathize with the dogmatic loyalty many writers feel towards hard science fiction—or, yikes, even Mundane SF—the grounding in real science that would seem to provide a firmer foundation to build a story upon. But China Miéville is the perfect example of a writer comfortable in moving freely from genre to genre—weird tale, fantasy, science fiction, detective fiction and back again—with no loss of purpose or quality. The reason for this is his ability to fashion a new, airtight internal logic in each successive story. He establishes rules for each new world he plays in, then rarely or never breaks those rules. No matter how weird, or even transgressive, a given story element may seem in some of China’s work, they all flow together in sympathetic fictional frameworks—nothing seems completely out of place, even the truly weird.

There’s also some melancholy to be found in the way these adherents to separate splinter factions of fantastic storytelling often react to each other with open hostility. Don’t get your urban, romantic,  paranormal fantasy in my post-colonial, slip-stream, steampunk, science fiction—our imaginary nerd seems to say—you just don’t get it. As fans and practitioners of sci-fi, aren’t we already marginalized enough without turning on our brothers and sisters?

I understand the impulse that leads so many to expend so much energy on defining themselves and what they do—I’m even a sucker for a good manifesto—but isn’t the act of defining an art the first step towards codifying that art?

And isn’t codifying any art an inherently reductive act?

The Foods of Tomorrow

soylent-green

Other than strident dystopias like The Sheep Look Up or Make Room! Make Room! (Soylent Green), science fiction doesn’t seem to really engage with food that often. Certainly I can think of great examples of descriptive scenes of eating in fantasy like The Lord of the Rings, but if an SF work does expend the same energy on food it tends to the horrific of the examples above, or the satirical—like the genetically engineered vat-food in Brave New World or the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster.

Food is a passion and hobby of mine, so this excellent article by Jason Sheehan hits a sweet-spot for me. As an ex-chef and food writer with a love of SF, Mr. Sheehan understands the potential of food as a fictional world-building tool. He cites a couple of examples—particularly the dog food scene in The Road Warrior—that have long preoccupied me as well.

The food-related SF example that looms largest for me though is an unlikely one: The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov. I say unlikely in that although Asimov is rightfully a giant in the field of SF, no one ever points to him for rhapsodic descriptions of foodstuffs—Proust he ain’t.

I read The Caves of Steel at about the age of fourteen. In the novel, Asimov imagines an enormous and nearly endless city, where many people live their whole lives without accessing open space. As a method of dealing with overpopulation, most citizens are issued chits for cafeteria-style eating rather than being allowed to prepare food at home—saving the space/resources for individual kitchens and food storage, and ensuring people only eat a ration based on their personal needs. He describes lining-up to hand in your chit and then passing on to another line for the food available to your particular circumstances.

In a weird bit of synchronicity the evening of the day I finished reading The Caves of Steel, my family visited a new restaurant for dinner. This restaurant is long since lost to the mists of time. It was a buffet place. You lined up to pay for a chit…then got into lines for individual, semi-cubicle divisions (like, yes, many men’s urinals) to stand at a space near a conveyor belt that rolled the food past you. The ambiance of the place was somewhere between high school cafeteria and a DMV.

What Mr. Sheehan understands better than the either the creators of that restaurant nightmare, or the average SF writer, is that food matters on many levels, it’s not just fuel.

Historically, Science Fiction, when it bothered to think about food at all, predicted either deprivation or pills that would make eating obsolete. No one in the Golden Age of SF ever predicted the 21st Century’s widespread resurgence of interest in DIY food production methods like canning, smoking and cheese-making.*

Food sets off reactions in our heads that we’re just beginning to understand. It’s no accident that cocaine and something fatty like bacon can light up similar regions of a brain-scan. Back to Proust again and the madeleine: food can trigger memories and emotional responses. We don’t want to make eating obsolete, we want to revel in both the sensual pleasures it affords and the cell-replacing sustenance it provides.

I’ve written before about the inherent power of imaginary food—it never disappoints. Mr. Sheehan’s article perfectly articulates the ways in which describing the food and eating habits of the characters populating a science-fictional universe can help make that universe more tangible, but I think there’s also another opportunity in this same effort. I’ve read many passages in general literature that bring to life an imaginary meal.**

I want to read more passages that attempt to convey a meal I can’t even imagine.

——
*Punk Domestics is a fantastic site that highlights this renewed interest in a return to the fundamentals of self-sufficient food preparation.
**My favourite is in Under the Jaguar Sun, by Italo Calvino.

Albino Books Now Up & Running

Welcome to Albino Books. For more information on your hosts, please visit the About page.

Albino Books

Albino Books was founded by booksellers and fans who love Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, Weird Tales, Hardboiled and everything in-between—as a venue for freewheeling discussion, genre-related news, reviews, criticism, and dealing in books & ephemera.

Worldcon '09 books display

The first sale we’ll have a booth at will be the next Geek Market in Ottawa, Canada this upcoming October 19th and 20th, 2013. Please come by and say hello.

As the site ramps up, we’ll have more information on how to buy books from us, but a significant portion of the content here will always be dedicated to news, reviews & editorials. Many of the books, comics, posters et cetera , that we show you pictures of will be for sale, unless otherwise attributed, so if you’re interested in purchasing something, just use the Contact page to let us know.

We we also be featuring the work of a select group of other contributors with a variety of of different approaches to genre culture—we’re trying to jump-start some conversation.

There are some things one can only achieve by a deliberate leap in the opposite direction.
—Franz Kafka